Life with a busy toddler can be a challenge. Tantrums and meltdowns can be a millisecond away since they have their own opinions and ideas. Everything in the world is new and exciting and must be explored. Their language is still limited. They struggle to put their thoughts in words and we sometime wonder if they understand us or are just being stubborn.
Here are eight gentle phrases we use at our house that work for us. I hope they will help you guide your little explorer through turbulent times into calm waters too!
1. I need to (state the need). I will be gentle.
Have you ever seen the grown-up that goes to a child without warning and furiously wipes the child’s nose or face? The child resists and flails his arms in defense and protests, then the adult chastises the child for resisting or crying. I hate that!
Before wiping a child’s face or nose, or doing anything that requires cooperation, tell them what you are going to do and that you will be gentle. For example, “I need to wipe your nose. I will be gentle.” Then be gentle. That doesn’t mean the child will like it, but when they know what to expect, and it happens gently, it builds trust and cooperation over time. This also models being gentle and ties that word to the action. It shows respect for the little person.This is not asking permission either. It is stating what is going to happen and following through.
2. Gentle hands, please.
When a toddler is playing rough or when they are grabbing something too harshly, stop the behavior and say, “Use gentle hands, please”. Then show them what you want them to do.
It is difficult for a toddler to understand when they are inflicting pain upon another person. They typically do not have the cognitive ability to understand another person’s perspective. They may be playing and totally oblivious that they are hurting someone by patting them on the back or head. Saying “gentle hands, please” is a phrase that teaches the social skill and language that will introduce seeing another person’s perspective.
3. Walk away.
When your child is in mischief and doing something that is off limits, the phrase “walk away” tells them exactly what to do. It helps avoid the negative “stop” or the over used “no-no”. If she still continues the inappropriate action state, “I will help you.” Then state again, “walk away” and physically and gently guide them to safety. Follow-up with positive reinforcement “Thanks for walking away” or “There you go, that’s the way we walk away!”
5. Please…sit down/put your feet on the floor/put the book on the shelf, and etc
Tell your child exactly what you want them to do. Give specific directions, if they don’t follow your directions then show them what to do. Toddlers are such busy curious little people they are able to find trouble around every corner. We want them to be little explorers! It is extremely easy to fall into the habit of focusing on the negative by saying: ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘don’t do that’ and more. Take that split second to think about what you want them to do and tell them exactly what to do. Also, don’t ask them. For example, don’t ask, “Will you please pick that up?” Kindly tell them what to do.
If they don’t follow your directions, they may not understand. Give them the benefit of the doubt that they may not have the receptive language to understand what has been said. Take the time to show them what you want them to do.
6. That’s not a toy.
If your child is handling or playing with something that is off limits state, “That’s not a toy.” The world is a new place and everything is intriguing. Show them what they can explore. Rotating toys helps the old ones become new and fresh.
7. Thank you for….listening, following directions, putting the toy on the shelf, and etc.
Just like giving specific directions, give specific praise for what they did right. It is much more genuine than saying “Good job!” or “Good boy!” Giving specific praise is an opportunity for your child to hear exactly what they did right and supports language development by connecting the words to the action.
8. I’m sorry you’re mad.
So you have used one of the phrases above and a meltdown happens. You have told your child to walk away. She doesn’t walk away. She protests or has a tantrum. That’s normal. Just expect it to happen. Be calm. Acknowledge her feelings, name them, and show empathy. Research shows that empathy is the most effective way to respond to a tantrum. (Brain Rules for Babies, by Dr. John Medina) For example, “I’m sorry you’re mad.” or “It is so frustrating when things don’t go your way.” 0r “I understand it is so frustrating, but playing with the outlet is not safe.”
Calmly be present for them until the emotions pass. Once they are calm you can guide them to walk away or give them options for things that they can do. It may take some time for them to be ready for them to move on. Give them that time, but don’t give into the tantrum.